Review: Oil and Water (Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland)

Oil and Water at Factory Theatre in Toronto

Oil and Water pays tribute to shipwreck survivor at Toronto’s Factory Theatre

Oil and Water opened last night at Factory Theatre. It was a celebrity filled audience which made me realize that even though I go to a lot of theatre I’m not a ‘theatre’ person. I recognized Rick Mercer but without Wayne (Mooney on Theatre’s Managing Editor) next to me explaining who people were I would have been completely in the dark.

Oil and Water is the true story of Lanier Phillips, the only African-American survivor of the sinking of the USS Truxton just off the coast of St Lawrence Newfoundland in 1942. The survivors were rescued by the citizens of St Lawrence. Phillips was nursed by Violet Pike who had never seen a black person before.

The acceptance and kindness that he experienced in St Lawrence changed Phillips life.

Oil and Water deals with difficult issues – segregation, racism, and prejudice – in a very matter of fact way. There is nothing preachy about the play. It’s a tale of redemption done with finesse and class, not an easy thing to do.

The story is told in a non-linear way.  It’s stylized and impressionistic. The focus shifts from Phillips and his daughter in the 1960s to St Lawrence. The St Lawrence segments  also shift focus from Violet Pike’s house to the mine and to the rescue and the aftermath. It’s very effective because we learn some of the back story. Wayne commented that because of the way the story is told the characters don’t really develop, they remain archetypes. Having some back story made this less of an issue for me.

This isn’t a musical but it’s full of music. The a cappella music blends beautifully with the story weaving its way through the entire piece, staying true to the emotions of the events. When cast members aren’t in the spotlight they’re humming or singing softly. It’s lovely. The music is a combination of traditional Newfoundland music and African-American Gospel, not a combination that we hear everyday.

I said earlier that Oil and Water deals with difficult issues.  It does, but in such a natural way that you never feel as if a point is being hammered home. There’s no heart-wrenching here, there are some truly funny moments in the play. It’s beautiful, balanced and entertaining. Well worth seeing. Wayne and I both really enjoyed it.

Lanier Phillips died 3 weeks ago. Oil and Water is a beautiful tribute to him and to the people of St Lawrence.


Oil and Water is playing at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) until May 6
– Performances are at 8 pm with a matinee at 2 pm on Sundays
– Tickets are $35.00 for evening performances and $30 for matinees
– Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.504.9971 and at the Box Office

Photo of Petrina Bromley and Ryan Allen by Paul Daly